Palestinians rise up against ‘Israeli collective punishment’

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The UN agency for Palestinian refugees has responded to being forced to close its offices in Gaza City last week as protesters blockaded its entrances, angry at the slashing of UNRWA’s emergency programmes, by calling for an end to Israeli ‘collective punishment’.

Demonstrators physically blocked the entrances of the agency’s offices with large vehicles after UNRWA removed tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees from its food distribution list.

UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness said on Monday that the lack of donor funds to the agency – and anti-UN protests on the doorstep of Israel – directly affect the stability of the region.

Asked about the crisis, Gunness said: ‘This protest action was entirely counter-productive.

‘By keeping hundreds of UNRWA staff out of their offices, the organisers were harming the very refugees on whose behalf they claim to be protesting.

‘The Gaza office is the “command and control” centre from which we run our programmes across the entire Gaza Strip.

‘We need access to our computers to service projects, to manage our education, health, relief and social service programmes.

‘It’s where the personnel department is based for, for example, paying staff salaries, it’s where our IT department is, it’s where the radio room is for security and without these things our full programmes become unsustainable very quickly.’

In response to the anger over the slashing of emergency services, Gunness added: ‘Because of a $35 million shortfall in its emergency budget, UNRWA in Gaza has been forced to make drastic cuts to its emergency programmes.

‘The original emergency appeal of $300 million had already been scaled back to $150 million because of the inadequate donor response and even against this minimum spending requirement, we are $35 million short.

‘The core of the $300 million emergency appeal had been for food assistance to 600,000 people, jobs for 53,000 people, cash assistance for 300,000 abject poor (living on less than $1.6 per day) and basic assistance to public health infrastructure.

‘Starting in the month of July, we have been forced to cut the jobs programme from 10,000 contracts per month to 6,500 contracts and we have been forced to end our “back to school” cash assistance of 100 NIS ($29.44) for each of more than 200,000 children in UNRWA schools.’

He said: ‘UNRWA is doing all it can to mobilise the support of donors.

‘But we fear that if the current situation continues, further cuts to our emergency services in Gaza will be inevitable.

‘Make no mistake, the lack of donor funds to UNRWA is now directly affecting the stability of the Middle East with anti-UN protests threatening to shut down UNRWA on the doorstep of Israel at a time of already heightened instability in the region.’

He stressed: ‘The real problem is that we are asking our donors to fund emergency programmes which aim to mitigate the effects of Israel’s illegal collective punishment of 1.5 million people.

‘The International Committee of the Red Cross has called the blockade a “clear breach of international law” in the face of which there has to be transparency and accountability.

‘From UNRWA’s point of view, it would be better for those states and organisations with the power to bring the necessary pressures to bear to end the collective punishment rather than pay UNRWA to deal with its disastrous impact.

‘We would far rather be spending our time and our donors’ money on human development, particularly in education, which does add to the stability of this region than on emergency operations which respond to an illegal and destabilising collective punishment.

‘Is it not better to end the root cause, which is the collective punishment?’

Palestinian premier in Gaza Ismail Haniya has called on the world parliaments to diligently work for lifting the ‘oppressive siege’ on the Gaza Strip and to halt Israeli atrocious practices against the Palestinian people.

Haniya, during a meeting on Sunday evening with a senior European parliament delegation, said that his call was addressed to European parliaments in particular and the world parliaments in general.

He hoped that the delegation’s visit would contribute in breaking the siege on Gaza, adding that the Palestinian people and government appreciate any effort toward that end.

The premier praised the delegates for visiting Gaza and explained to them Palestinian developments including the ceaseless Israeli attacks on the unarmed Palestinian people especially in the coastal enclave.

The EU delegates promised to carry the premier’s message to the world, and called on the international community to reconsider its position toward the government in Gaza and to open dialogue with it.

• Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Riyad Al-Maliki on Monday dismissed reports that Israel might revoke the Oslo Accords if Palestine sought UN membership in September.

Al-Maliki said: ‘Tel Aviv will not dare to take that step because the world will defy that before the Palestinians do.

‘This is just an attempt to weaken the spirit of Palestinian people and leaders and urge them to drop September’s UN bid.’

He insisted that the Palestinian leadership would continue to pursue full membership of the UN and world recognition of Palestine as an independent state.

Israel and the US openly oppose the UN bid.

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported on Monday that National Security Adviser Yaakov Amidror was considering voiding the Oslo Accords as one of several options to respond to a UN campaign by the PA.

Under the 1995 Oslo agreement, the PA has administrative and security control over around 17.2 per cent of the West Bank, Area A.

But Israeli military’s frequent incursions into Area A have undermined the accords, which were intended as an interim agreement to lead to a permanent solution by 1999.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office confirmed that Israel’s National Security Council was discussing several ways to respond to a UN campaign by the PA.

Meanwhile, Palestinian ambassadors on Monday concluded a three-day meeting in Istanbul which focused on Palestine’s bid for UN membership.

Palestinian officials unanimously agreed to outline plans for each continent instructing envoys on how to mobilise support for the UN campaign and which countries and organisations to focus on, PA Minister for Foreign Affairs Riyad Al-Maliki said.

President Mahmud Abbas attended the conference, and said on Saturday that Israel had forced Palestinians to take their statehood campaign to the UN by refusing to end its occupation and settlement building.

‘We are going to the United Nations because we are forced to, it is not a unilateral action,’ he said at a gathering attended by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

‘We have not been able to return to negotiations with Netanyahu because of his refusal to negotiate on the basis of the 1967 borders and to stop settlement.

‘Our first, second and third choice is to return to negotiations,’ Abbas said.

The last round of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations collapsed in September shortly after Washington relaunched the first direct talks for nearly two years.

Palestinian negotiators withdrew from the talks over Netanyahu’s refusal to extend a partial freeze on illegal Jewish-only settlement building on occupied Palestinian land.